Ohio Senate Race Skewed by "Pants on Fire" Media Narrative

In the U.S. Senate race between Democrat incumbent Sherrod Brown and Republican challenger Josh Mandel, a PolitiFact Ohio narrative – that Mandel is a ridiculous liar – has taken center stage, aided by reporters who treat PolitiFact Ohio as an objective source and ignore proof of the publication’s liberal bias.

Evidence presented by Media Trackers shows that PolitiFact Ohio, the “fact checking” arm of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, leans left. PolitiFact Ohio is staffed by liberal journalists who produce skewed analysis of political statements and advertise their work as unbiased despite flawed, opinion-driven processes.

Progressive Analysis of Political Statements

Media Trackers has debunked the string of three PolitiFact Ohio “Pants on Fire” rulings Tom Feran assigned to Josh Mandel this summer. Feran is not the only PolitiFact Ohio “fact checker” whose rulings betray a liberal bias, but his work represents the most glaring testament to the outlet’s leftward slant.

In June, Feran gave Sherrod Brown a pass for his support of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) by ruling as “Pants on Fire” a Mandel statement that “Brown gave huge bonuses to executives,” although many executives at companies funded by ARRA received huge bonuses.

In July, Feran ignored all evidence except a single year of Congressional Budget Office tax revenue and GDP estimates in order to declare a Mandel claim that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act “will likely go down as the biggest tax increase in history” another “Pants on Fire” lie.

In August, Feran decided a Mandel statement asserting “Brown sent billions of our tax dollars to foreign countries” was yet another “Pants on Fire” lie, offering a small portion of ARRA as proof and deeming foreign aid spending irrelevant.

When not attacking Mandel on issues central to the Senate campaign, Feran has assigned Brown four “True” rulings – more than any other PolitiFact Ohio contributor – and zero “Pants on Fire” rulings.

Even when all of the more than 400 Democrat and Republican statements judged by PolitiFact Ohio through September 2012 are considered, Feran’s extreme leftism is only partially diluted.

These results can mean only one of two things. Either Democrats are far more honest than Republicans, or the lack of scientific processes at PolitiFact Ohio produces biased “fact checks” when combined with the liberal tilt of the outlet’s staff.

For more detailed critiques of individual rulings from Feran and others, refer to Jon Cassidy’s “PolitiFact or Fiction” series at Ohio Watchdog.

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Four Steps to Flawed Fact Checking

PolitiFact Ohio follows the model of PolitiFact, whose tagline is “Sorting out the truth in politics.” PolitiFact’s flawed processes enable the truth to be overlooked or obfuscated in at least four different ways.

  1. PolitiFact Ohio has no scientific process for selecting statements; the outlet does not judge all political television ads, or all statements made at campaign events, or a randomized list of statements. PolitiFact Ohio rules on the statements PolitiFact Ohio staffers feel like ruling on.
  2. PolitiFact Ohio has no clear guidelines for whether a statement shall be judged by its exact words or by what PolitiFact Ohio perceives as its implied meaning. Likewise, no guidelines define how much context may or must be considered.
  3. PolitiFact Ohio has no scientific process for ensuring all relevant data are considered when ruling on the accuracy of a statement. PolitiFact Ohio rulings include or exclude – and emphasize or discount – facts based on what PolitiFact Ohio staffers feel is important.
  4. PolitiFact Ohio does not assign binary true/false rulings, instead judging statements against a complex six-point scale which provides another opportunity for writers to inject their personal opinions.

PolitiFact Ohio rulings are presented as indicators of subjects’ relative honesty despite being reached via an unscientific process colored at every stage by human bias. Each political figure’s percentage breakdown of “True,” “Mostly True,” “Half True,” “Mostly False,” “False,” and “Pants on Fire” rulings is displayed on the PolitiFact Ohio website.

These percentages and the conclusions drawn from them would be incredibly deceptive with or without an imbalance in the party identification of PolitiFact Ohio writers.

Liberal “Fact Checkers”

As Media Trackers has reported, an overwhelming majority of PolitiFact Ohio employees are registered Democrats. Both of PolitiFact Ohio’s editors are Democrats.

Frequent PolitiFact Ohio contributor Tom Feran proudly announced on his personal Twitter account that he had voted for Barack Obama in October 2008. After Obama’s election, Feran wrote, “This says it all! Go-bama! New Deal!” with a link to a vitriolic progressive blog post:

In short, the modern conservative movement’s leaders consist of those who despise working people, those who proudly defend America’s horrible racist legacy, the worst of the religious fanatics, and all those who wish to preserve America as an all-white, fundamentalist Christian patriarchy.


Today, look what the Republican Party stands for: opposition to American working men and women, the channeling of trillions of dollars to the richest Americans, hatred of gays, hatred of immigrants, continued smoldering racism, opposition to desperately needed health care reforms, opposition to all environmental protections, spitting hatred for science, hatred for public schools, hatred of all those who are not fundamentalist Christians, support for torture, support for rendition, and support for the fantastically corrupt Bush-Cheney regime.


The Radical Right is now going to try to destroy Obama and block every reform he tries to institute. We, the Progressive Netroots, must and will fight these dangerous radicals every step of the way.

Feran has also used his personal Twitter account to voice support for Occupy Wall Street and to call conservatives “wingnuts” and “yahoos.”

PolitiFact Ohio editor Robert Higgs follows Feran on Twitter. There is no evidence to suggest Feran’s far-left political beliefs have moderated since 2008.

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Journalists Create a Narrative

Bias at the Plain Dealer doesn’t end with PolitiFact Ohio enabling liberal staffers to frame their opinions as facts. The same journalists also draw conclusions based on trends in their own rulings, report these conclusions as news, and then resume writing “fact checks” as if they can objectively judge the statements of politicians they have pilloried as proven liars.

Henry J. Gomez began a March story titled, “Even in an age of fact-check journalism, the political whopper lives,” by writing, “Josh Mandel’s already casual relationship with the truth took a turn toward outright estrangement this month.”

“For the Mandel campaign, the rebuke from the fact-checking arm of The Plain Dealer was just another day at the office,” Gomez wrote. “Mandel has received three of PolitiFact Ohio’s seven most recent Pants on Fire rulings. Of his 14 statements evaluated on the Truth-O-Meter since 2010, six have been deemed Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire.”

Tom Feran, in a July story titled, “Campaign attacks give Josh Mandel Pants on Fire crown,” wrote that “Mandel’s campaign said early on that it would mount a rigorous attack. He and several super PACs have lambasted Brown for being too liberal, too Washington and not right for Ohio.”

“The free-swinging strategy has made Mandel the Pants on Fire leader of PolitiFact Ohio,” Feran added. “The Pants on Fire ratings show that he has been prone to repeat talking points and make incendiary comments that are longer on rhetoric than fact.”

In short, Gomez and Feran wrote “fact checks” slamming Mandel for lying, wrote separate stories congratulating themselves for proving Mandel a liar, and then resumed “fact checking” Mandel’s statements.

Even assuming every negative ruling given to Mandel is accurate, PolitiFact Ohio has no answer for selection bias. For instance, in a USA Today editorial published months after PolitiFact Ohio launched, Sherrod Brown wrote a scathing attack on conservatism:

Meanwhile, for more than a century – in churches and temples, in union halls and neighborhood centers, in the streets and at the ballot box – progressives have moved the country forward. Progressives brought us minimum wage and Social Security in the 1930s, civil rights and Medicare in the 1960s, and health care and Wall Street reform in 2010.

Opponents of these accomplishments – some of society’s most privileged and well-entrenched interest groups – have not changed much. The John Birch Society of 1965 has bequeathed its fervor and extremism to the Tea Party of 2010.


The Tea Party vision of 21st century America would gut Medicare and Social Security, ignore the minimum wage, and scale back consumer protections and regulations that keep Wall Street honest and our food supply safe. It seems to me that Tea Party activists, increasingly influential in the Republican Party, do not seem to much like America the way we are.

Although Plain Dealer Washington bureau chief Stephen Koff, a frequent PolitiFact Ohio contributor, wrote a news story about Brown’s op-ed, none of its incendiary contents were judged by PolitiFact Ohio.

Meanwhile, Feran’s “Campaign attacks give Josh Mandel Pants on Fire crown” story is prominently featured in multiple Sherrod Brown television commercials and online ads.

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News Reporters Appeal to Biased Authority

Ohio political reporters hold PolitiFact Ohio in high regard, citing “Truth-o-Meter” rulings as objective facts and repeating narratives created by Feran, Gomez, and others. Proof of Tom Feran’s extreme liberal bias was published at Media Trackers on August 16 and has been pitched to reporters and newspapers for weeks, but PolitiFact Ohio is still treated as unbiased purely because PolitiFact Ohio claims to be unbiased.

In the opening paragraph of a September 19 BusinessWeek story, Mark Niquette wrote, “Ohio Republican Josh Mandel started a bid to unseat U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown trailing by as much as 17 percentage points in polls. He’s since racked up more fact-checker censures for complete inaccuracy than any Ohio politician.”

Niquette quoted PolitiFact Ohio extensively in his story. Nonetheless, Bloomberg editor Stephen Merelman responded to a Media Trackers inquiry by writing that Niquette’s piece “provides ample information for readers to make up their own minds about who tells the truth” because it included a single quote from Mandel criticizing PolitiFact Ohio.

At NPR, Karen Kasler took a similar approach in a September 20 story.

“When the fact-checkers started weighing in, Mandel ended up with some very poor scores. Brown got a few ‘false’ ratings from PolitiFact, and one ‘pants on fire’ – its worst rating,” Kasler wrote. “Mandel has collected the ‘pants on fire’ rating six times. One of Mandel’s ads got three separate ‘pants on fire’ or ‘false’ rulings alone, and the Brown campaign has launched a website labeling Mandel a liar.”

Like Niquette, Kasler provided no indication that PolitiFact Ohio leans left except for a Mandel quote disputing PolitiFact Ohio’s credibility.

For quotes from other Ohio reporters who have trumpeted PolitiFact Ohio as unbiased “fact-checkers,” see previous Media Trackers coverage:


The Plain Dealer markets PolitiFact Ohio as an objective source despite unscientific processes, the influence of extreme leftist Tom Feran, and a heavily Democrat-weighted staff. Elsewhere, reporters credulously cite PolitiFact Ohio rulings as if they weren’t liberal editorials with an added Truth-o-Meter graphic.

Ohio’s legacy media have displayed no interest in acknowledging PolitiFact Ohio is a left-leaning publication. Without a concerted effort from conservative new media, PolitiFact Ohio will continue its deceptive business as usual and readers of Ohio’s biggest daily newspapers will be none the wiser.

Cross-posted from Media Trackers Ohio.